A month into the season, it seems to have been more warning than aberration. On Monday, Siakam was named Eastern Conference Player of the Week, becoming the first Raptor not named Kyle Lowry or DeMar DeRozan to win the award since Lou Williams in 2014 and becoming the first G League graduate since Hassan Whiteside to earn the honour. More importantly than the nod to what he’d done so far, Siakam would get another chance to go head-to-head with Davis, this time in a more representative environment.
“I think every night there’s always someone, every team is always good, but there’s always someone that you look at and wanna be able to do good against, just guarding them,” Siakam said at shootaround. “And when you play against great players, it’s always fun, right?”
Fun was not the operative word in this one, as the Pelicans bludgeoned the Raptors with the realities of shotmaking variance on the way to a 126-110 victory. (We’ll have more on the defensive issues facing the Raptors later in the week, including a breakdown of E’Twaun Moore’s Floater Game.)
Once again, though, Siakam shone as a bright spot. He’d finish with 22 points on just 13 used possessions, one point off the career high he set on Saturday and his third-straight 20-point game. He was also tasked on occasion with checking Davis, one of the singular most difficult defensive assignments in basketball. The win would go to Davis were it being scored, but Siakam hanging tight is impressive; this is a third-year player many were unsure could be a starter when he was drafted as a surprise first-round pick in 2016 up against a bonafide two-way superstar in Davis. And not only did Siakam not look out of place, he had some fun moments trading shots with a top-10 player.
Siakam still ate in transition, which is unlikely to change no matter the matchup. He opened the game with an and-one after going the distance with a defensive rebound and followed it with a wild transition floater. Shortly after, he’d show off his emerging three-point shot by smartly reading the developing play and spacing away from Davis from the dunker spot to the corner, where Serge Ibaka found him for a three (Siakam was 2-for-4 and has now hit five over two consecutive games for the first time ever). He’d get fouled on a spin move in transition, execute one in the post against Davis and add another three for good measure.
To be fair, Siakam didn’t do an exceptional job on Davis overall – nobody did, as Davis steamrolled his way to a 25-point, 20-rebound, six-assist Whoa Boy candidate – but his effort against him was solid. Davis did manage to answer one of Siakam’s threes with one of his own, only for Siakam to respond by blocking Davis on a post-up attempt shortly after. (Julius Randle would try his hand at this, too, fouling Siakam on one end and then getting stopped on the other.) Again, Davis was still dominant, especially on the glass where Siakam remains a work in progress; too often, the Raptors failed to pick up the helper, letting Davis feast on put-backs on the rare occasion Moore or Jrue Holiday actually missed.
Siakam, on the heels of being named the NBA’s Eastern Conference Player of the Week, may be quietly campaigning for some much bigger hardware: the Most Improved Player of the Year.
Averaging a team-high 20 points last week, the third-year Raptor was a big factor as Toronto picked up three-straight wins. He followed up a 16-point performance against the Jazz with 21 against the Kings, helping the Raptors sweep a four-game Western Conference road trip for the first time in franchise history. He then dropped a career-high 23 points on the visiting Knicks to seal the Eastern Conference honour.
All of this has helped Siakam average career highs across the board — 13.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2 assists and 1.1 steals per game on the season. Sure, it helps when you’re named the starting power forward early in the season and your minutes jump from 20.7 to 27.9 per game, but there’s more to it than that.
He’s earned the trust of his coaches and teammates, specifically when it comes to handling the ball. There was a time when Siakam wasn’t much of a focal point in the half-court offence, but the Raptors are now confident in his ability to make plays, even if his opponents aren’t.
“It’s a little bit like (Ben) Simmons, right?” said head coach Nick Nurse, insinuating that opponent’s don’t exactly respect Siakam’s perimeter shooting when the 76ers were in town two weeks ago. “People stay back and he’s absorbing all that space with some speed and some ball-handling skill. He’s almost getting a head of steam without anybody holding him up.”
Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse joins Doug Gottlieb on the Doug Gottlieb Show to discuss what went wrong against the New Orleans Pelicans. He talks about the success of the Raptors through the first 14 games of the season. And he also gives Doug insight on what he likes best about Kawhi Leonard.
To say Boucher has been a revelation early this season is an understatement.
“We got him right from Summer League and we weren’t quite sure what we had,” says Raptors 905 head coach Jama Mahlalela, who also coached Boucher on the Raptors’ Summer League team in Las Vegas this past July. “He was this raw talent but we didn’t know how to space him and exactly what to do.”
Boucher is a late bloomer who didn’t play organized basketball until six years ago. He averaged nearly five blocks per game in Junior College and was named 2016’s NJCAA Player of the Year while starring for little-known Northwest College in Powell, Wyo. He transferred to Oregon for his junior and senior seasons, where he flashed his potential as a rim-runner and shot-blocker. But with questions about positional fit, impact of an ACL injury that cut his final season short in 2017, and whether his skinny frame could withstand the physicality of the NBA game, he went undrafted.
The Golden State Warriors, of all teams, took a chance on Boucher and signed him to a two-way contract. After rehabbing from injury, he played for the Warriors’ G League affiliate in Santa Cruz, Calif., and made his NBA debut in mid-March of this year.
A bouncy prospect with an undeveloped game, it wasn’t until this year’s Summer League under Mahlalela that things began to click when, after a few games playing power forward, the coach began playing Boucher at centre. “It was such a natural switch,” says Mahlalela, “and he really flipped gears. That’s when we all said ‘I think we have something here.’”
27 PPG, 44.4% FG%, 38.7% 3P% (3/7.8 3PM/A), 12.5 REB, 2 AST, 2 STL, 4 BLK, 2.8 TO, +8.5 +/-
Canadian KD started his Raptors 905 G League campaign with a bang. For a late-bloomer, Boucher seems to be a quick study, showing flashes of things we’re used to seeing from Kevin Durant/Giannis Antetokounmpo (smooth long euro-step), coast-to-coast like Giannis/Pascal Siakam, and dead-on perimeter shooting for a big like Kristaps Porzingis. Yes, I went there.
Where do we start here? I’m actually mind-blown by what I’ve seen so far. I know Boucher can hit his perimeter shots, but he’s shooting from range with no conscience, and he’s hitting at a good clip. Whether it’s a catch-and-shoot or off-the-dribble, as long as Boucher’s feet are set, there’s a good chance it’s going in. It doesn’t even matter whether he just checked in the game.
If the three-pointers were not a surprise, how about Boucher going coast-to-coast for a dunk looking like a gazelle? Boucher Euro-stepping? Putting up a floater off a drive? Rim-running? The more Boucher plays, the more he looks like a forward than a centre.
Speaking of “centre,” Boucher’s pretty good at being tall and long around the basket. As the lone big for the Raptors 905 for the most part, he grabs plenty of rebounds. If a player doesn’t put a body on him, there’s a good chance that the shot will either be blocked or a brick. Boucher’s doing this straight up or as a help defender. Hey, he can also do chase-down blocks.
Boucher’s playing at a high level to start the season, it feels like it’s blasphemous to write something bad about him. Nevertheless, he wasn’t perfect, and there are issues that do need to get resolved if he aspires to carve a career in the big league.
There’s still a lot to be desired strength-wise, as Boucher often found himself getting bodied by much more physical guys when they post him up. What’s unacceptable is that he was easily boxed out by smaller guys — even guards. Maybe because he had front row seat watching KD last year, Boucher had a hard time posting up smaller players and often had to resort to that KD/Dirk one-legged step back jumper off the post.
Lastly, this is something I’d probably look closer as he plays in more games: whenever Boucher gets switched with a guard on pick-and-roll defense, he sags like Jonas Valanciunas and his hands are down. We all know that guards’ with a quick floater/mid-range game will take advantage of that opening.
Casey was fired before James went to the Lakers and before Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green were traded to Toronto. Nurse has a new team and a different way and has experienced early and impressive results with how the Raptors are playing.
Veterans Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka have never been better. Pascal Siakam is looking like an all-star and Anunoby doesn’t seem to be a sophomore at all. Jonas Valanciunas has never played less and been more efficient.
And Leonard, well, is what he was advertised to be — an elite player in the NBA.
This is already Nurse’s team. Casey is being paid way more money with way more term to coach the Pistons, but that’s the contractual stuff, not the human stuff. Casey is being paid life-changing money in Detroit, but once the season begins, money becomes less relevant than wins and strategies and preparation for coaching lifers.
Nurse is a coaching lifer himself. He started to hear his name mentioned last season for head-coaching jobs in other places. He believed this would be his year.
“I thought my opportunity was coming,” Nurse said. “I didn’t think it would be here.”
In a conversation Monday with Sportsnet, Casey refused to be drawn into the ‘hard feelings’ storyline, saying only that he and Nurse have been too busy to talk – this after working side-by-side, day-after-day, for five years. He did say he’d spoken to Ujiri after bumping into him prior to the season at a league meeting. “There’s no story there,” he says.
For his part Nurse seemed sincere Tuesday in expressing his admiration for his former boss: “We had five years together and a lot of success. A lot of battles and a lot of long hours together, working hard,” he said Tuesday. “He took a team from relative obscurity, or the hinterlands, to relevance and that may be the hardest thing to do in this league… we had a lot of success and I learned a lot from the guy and have a lot of respect for the guy as well.”
But have they spoken? Shared a congratulatory phone call? Sent a note of thanks or made plans to get together and rehash those pivotal five years?
Sometimes it’s what isn’t said that matters most.
“My communication with whoever I’m communicating with, whether it’s between Kyle and me and Kawhi and me or Case, or whoever. I’ll keep that to myself,” said Nurse. “I am looking forward to seeing him tomorrow.”
Said Casey: “I haven’t heard from him [Nurse], I think he texted me once I got the job here, but haven’t talked to him or spoke to him since then.”
That’s a long way from: ‘He sent me a really nice text after I got hired’ and ‘I called him as soon he got the job in Detroit.’
The succession between assistants and head coaches in the NBA can be difficult, but also amicable. When Sam Mitchell got fired by the Raptors midway through the 2008-09 season, he gathered his assistants in his hotel room in Denver and told them he hoped that one of them would get the job, and was pleased when Jay Triano did. But sometimes – when there’s a perception that the assistant wasn’t completely aligned with his boss or when the boss is seen as trying to hold back his assistants — hard feelings can linger.
No one has ever suggested Nurse was working against Casey – according to sources he went out of his way to avoid being seen doing anything of the sort during the job interview process. And as Nurse said Monday, he was certainly hopeful that after more than 20 years working his way up the coaching ranks he would be a head coach somewhere in the NBA this season. “I just didn’t think it would be here.”
But if Casey is frustrated that his inability to beat LeBron James and the Cavaliers made him the fall guy for anything that went wrong while his relatively unproven assistant — with the benefit of having Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green on his roster — gets the credit for whatever goes right, you can understand where he’s coming from. Did those tensions boil over during some moments during the Cleveland series, just like Ujiri confronted Casey in frustration after their heart-breaking Game 3 loss to the Cavaliers?
“Every statistical category you have, we started there (at the bottom).
“So, initially, yes, those emotions come (will) come out but once they throw it up, my emotions are with the Detroit Pistons, what we’re trying to do — trying to get a win and build a program at a championship level.”
His 6-6 club seems a long way off from that level, yet it’s way ahead of Casey’s initial Toronto teams, the first of which started fading big men Jamaal Magloire and Aaron Gray at centre and relied nearly entirely on enigmatic forward Andrea Bargnani and a raw DeRozan.
Even that group won 23 times in the shortened, 66-game schedule, one more win than the previous squad had managed over 82 games. After that, Casey’s Raptors just kept on rising, improving their record in five of the next six seasons, all the way to 59 victories last year.
Nurse, his successor and long-time assistant, said Casey’s work ethic was second to none and his teams and staff never went into a game unprepared.
“He did some really good things for the city, for the team,” Jonas Valanciunas said.
“I think everybody respects him. As a business, we’ve got to move on and he (ended) up pretty well, so that is life. Sometimes we’re separating.”
Like all coaches, Casey made mistakes. But under Casey, one of the NBA’s perennial punching bags learned how to stand up for itself. He helped the Raptors forge an identity that continues to this day.
While it is expected to be a strange and emotional day when Dwane Casey returns to Toronto with the Pistons, Josh Lewenberg explains how it could also be a different day for some of Casey’s former players on Toronto.
With the Pistons in town to face the 12-2 Raptors on Wednesday, Dwane Casey, the reigning coach of the year, makes his first return to Toronto since being fired. It will likely be a night of mixed emotions for him and his former team. Josh Lewenberg has more.
WIN ONE FOR CASEY: Detroit players are intent on making Casey’s return to Toronto, where the reigning coach of the year was turfed this past May, as sweet as possible.
“I would love nothing more, honestly,” Pistons guard Reggie Jackson told the Detroit News about the importance of a victory over the Raptors. “This one would be special if we could get a win for him. He’s not going to say anything about it and we probably won’t talk about it, but guys will have it in the back of their minds.”
Teammate Langston Galloway agreed: “It’d be huge. I know he really wanted that win. He won’t say it, but we need to get this win for him.”
As for Casey, he says he’s just happy to get the return out of the way early in the season.
“It’s always good to get it out of the way, the initial one, because after that they’ll be booing us the way they always do,” he told reporters in Detroit.
Nurse was asked if he’d be disappointed if he and Casey don’t eventually rediscover some semblance of a friendship.
“Listen, my first and foremost concerns are this: that I do this job to the truest of my abilities, that I serve my family first and my players next and do the best job I can,” Nurse said. “Again, listen, I have a lot of respect for the guy. I really like him. That’s all I can say. I don’t really give it much thought. What I focus my time on is getting these guys to play their asses off.”
In other words, it’s a relationship business, sure. But it’s also a cutthroat league, and most of the relationships are built out of convenience and mutual interest. On Tuesday, Raptors all-star Kyle Lowry reminisced about the fruitful evolution of his co-existence with Casey, which was at times burdened by trust issues but also brought both men plenty of success. Lowry smiled.
“I’m still going to try and take his head off — his team’s head off — and win the game,” Lowry said of Casey.
So don’t expect Lowry to be the mender of fences between Nurse and Casey.
“Whatever they have going on, that ain’t my job to get in between it,” Lowry said. “They’re both grown men.”
“It is specifically pointing the finger at me — and that’s their prerogative,” Casey said. “They said I was the problem. I know what we did over a seven-year period there and starting from the rebuilding, developing and in the lottery to where they are now.
“They can’t take that away. A lot of people can take credit for all the good and put all the bad on me — and that’s fine.”
It’s clear that Casey, 61, still holds some fury from his time in Toronto, but he’s carrying that over to the Pistons, as he returns to the city where he has his best coaching success. He stresses that his issues are not with the fans or the city, or even with the ownership group, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment.
Media reports from the time of his firing indicated there was some friction between Casey and Ujiri, and it seems that every rebuild needs a scapegoat. Right or wrong, Ujiri made the move that he felt needed to be made to improve the Raptors, then coupled it with a blockbuster trade to send DeMar DeRozan, the face of the franchise, to the Spurs for Kawhi Leonard.
With their 12-2 start, the Raptors have validated Ujiri’s move with the NBA’s best record. With that, Casey’s frustrations with Ujiri were clear.
“It’s not the city; it’s not the fans and it’s not the MLSE; it’s the situation,” Casey said. “I’m a big boy. I don’t want to come off like I’m not a big boy. I understand the business; I know we were winning and we did everything they asked us to do.
“They said develop young players, win games, get the defense better and offense better and we did that. at the end of the day, we couldn’t get over the hurdle of beating Cleveland. Boston didn’t and (James) went (to the NBA Finals) eight years straight, so we weren’t the only ones. To me, it’s deeper than not getting the job done. If I was there losing, (I’d understand).”
Physicality rules: A visit from the Pistons means matching up against the size and strength of Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond. “They’re good and they’re big and strong,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said. “It’s a little bit [of a] different lineup than you see now in this league. They are coming at you with three legitimate bigs…We’ve got to be ready for their physicality and their strength.” While Nurse said his team needs to be prepared for Detroit’s physicality, Jonas Valanciunas is embracing it. “It’s going to be a physical match up,” Valanciunas said. “[Drummond is] a physical guy. He’s always in the paint, a good big guy. It’s always fun to go against him.”
“(Our relationship) changed a lot,” Lowry said. “It went from a guy who kind of wasn’t trusting in what I did, and me not trusting in what he wanted, and kind of us battling back and forth, to him being like, ‘Hey listen, I believe in what you can do, you show me what you can do,’ and me saying ‘All right, if you show me that and I’ve showed you what I can do, I’ll listen to you more and we’ll have a good relationship.’
“It turned into a great coach-player relationship. And him having young kids, and me having … they played soccer together, so we created a bond off the court also.”
Nick Nurse, who was promoted to head coach after Casey’s dismissal, insisted he was looking forward to seeing his former boss despite rumors the two were not close.
“My communication with whoever is between me and whoever I’m communicating with, whether it’s between Kyle and me and Kawhi (Leonard) and me or Case and me … or whoever,” Nurse told The Canadian Press. “I’ll keep that to myself. I am looking forward to seeing him.”
Nurse characterized his relationship with Casey as “good.”
Nurse seems to have taken this team to the next level and that is no small feat seeing as how the Raptors held the top spot in the Eastern Conference just last year. It may be early this season, but they’re currently holding that spot this year as well.
In the past, Raptors teams have underperformed in the playoffs. Either that or they just were unlucky in the fact that they were always destined to run into LeBron James at the end of the year. However, James is gone now, and the Eastern Conference is officially open for the taking.
We’re about an eighth of the way through the season at this point, and it looks like the Raptors see that their window is open again, and they are going for it.
Anything can happen, but right now it looks like the Raptors are poised to make some serious noise come playoff time.